It happens every summer. By mid-July, France dominates your travel cravings. The cities lure you with their museums, their fashion, and their café culture. The Alps, the beaches, and little villages beckon you away from the crowds. Delicious cheese and wine are available everywhere. While Bastille Day celebrations make you want to linger.
This year, you’re heading to the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is known as the Garden of France. It straddles the middle stretch of the Loire, the longest river in France, southwest of Paris. This is the area where kings used to escape. They built grand châteaus, hunted, and relaxed away from the busy capital. Today the valley, the entire valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s famous for its historic cities, grand cathedrals, overflowing orchards, and peaceful pace.
Fontevraud-l’Abbaye is particularly peaceful. The stone town, in between Tours and Angers, is home to a medieval abbey. It’s actually the largest abbey in all of Europe. After being founded by monks in the 12th century, it was where nuns cared for lepers, a convalescent home, and a hospital before being turned into a prison by Napoléon. The religious complex has since been carefully restored. Visitors come to see the Romanesque church, royal tombs, and stunning cloisters. They can also spend the night.
Fontevraud L’Hôtel immediately feels like a magical place. It’s surrounded by manicured gardens and apple orchards. The limestone walls look like chalk that might crumble if you touch them. Sunlight pours through large windows. While the vibe manages to be both historical and stylish at the same time. You pass through a glass-and-metal door to enter the lobby. It’s full of original stonework, raw-oak furniture, and muted colors. If it weren’t for the monks’ robes hanging on the wall, you might think you had arrived at a minimal Scandinavian hotel instead.
Before reaching your room, you’re given an iPad—with which you can do everything from tour the abbey to make dinner reservations to order a glass of wine at the iBar—and shown the courtyard full of medicinal plants. The rooms are tucked under eaves in spaces that were once nuns’ dormitories. You find more oak furniture, crisp linens, and a spotless bathroom in yours. It also includes a view of the garden with a church steeple in the background.
You pick up your iPad to decide which part of the abbey to start exploring. The abbey church and the original gravesites of King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, look like the place to start. But then you’re distracted by the menu at Le Restaurant and make a late dinner reservation on the terrace. The five-course menu, featuring vegetables grown at the abbey, leaves your mouth watering—for wine. With a few more swipes, you order a glass of sparkling Saumur wine, whose grapes were grown just a few miles away. There’s no rush. You have all night to explore the abbey. And once it closes to day visitors, you’ll have a little piece of France all to yourself.